Yesterday Eric Ripert and Le Bernardin were reviewed by the New York Times.
I’ve been working in the industry for 28 years, a legitimate 28 years. In that time I have worked with, and interviewed many, many folks. Some had the right stuff to succeed at a very high level, the number is staggering of those who could have done the work but chose not to. I often wonder if quitting on high level work is the result of a certain sort of feeling of inevitability? Maybe they think that it’s inevitable that one day they will rise to the top like cream, then years slip away.
Of the years I spent working at the three star Michelin level there were many cooks, many had great talent, yet so few, so very few that could perform day in and day out. It’s staggering the sheer number of folks that thought they had the right stuff, but couldn’t last but a little while.
Begging the question what was wrong with me? What synaptic misfire took place that allowed me to thrive under pressure, under criticism, under constant threat of dismissal?
Then consider Eric Ripert, who for 18 years has been the Executive Chef at a Four Star NY Times resto. That is no different than saying he has been the starting shortstop for the Yankees for 18 years, it’s practically an impossibility. Yet a fact.
Perhaps by telling this next little bit about my experience with him, I can further shed some light on this extraordinary man.
Yesterday I was chatting with the teacher of one of my sons, and he asked how long I have been cooking. I said,”something platitude something platitude.” Truthfully it came early, not as much as a calling but as a salvation. While my relationship with my folks hadn’t been horrific, other experiences had. The details are less relevant than the effects.
By the time I wound up on Ripert’s door step I was in rough shape. At only 28 I was at the tail end of a marriage, I had married young in hopes of something, maybe escape, who knows. But the marriage was an impossibility to survive, as my entire life’s focus had been on cooking, and food, that was my buoy, and I was determined to hold on. I had at that point never really been home, visited only once, never wanted to look back. As those that have been in my position will tell you looking back is no small thing, but a man without a history, without much of a family, makes his own way as best he can.
Enter Eric. I interviewed with him on the afternoon that Gray Kunz told me that I had to go, that my rebelliousness had become a problem. But he wanted to set me up, didn’t want to cut me off. So he called Eric and asked him to give me a job. Eric did.
The first a couple months were very tough. I really didn’t think I could take it, but somehow just before I would quit he would reel me back in, give me hope. I worked through the stations. One day Terry Feury announced that Eric had hooked him up with a gig in Philly. Eric then announced that he would choose the next sous from the staff. The choice was difficult, it was among two other cooks and myself, a fantastic young man that had a magnanimous personality, and a young women who was determined.
Honestly neither of them had dedicated their lives to kitchen work, they were balanced “normal” people that didn’t stand a chance next to the person who breathed, slept and drank every dish, at home and at work. The announcement came, I wrote about this in my book. What I didn’t write was that he took me under his wing, despite knowing how much I was hurting. He loved me, to a man that very much needed love, he gave. One night I remember sitting in a hotel room on some trip until the early hours of the morning he shared his vision and his passion about food as if I were the king of France, this kid with a difficult start at things who many had written off.
Not many days would go by when he wouldn’t sit me in his office and talk things out, deal with various aspects of managing others, and by extension myself. We worked on the caviar croque monsieur, me and Mike, he wanted to see if we could execute the dish, and sent us to try, we ran back to his office beaming ear to ear. One of the highlights of my career. He never wanted to be fake, he wanted his work to be amazing, to always take chances that he felt were right, to follow his heart, it was amazing to witness. He made flying look so easy and so peaceful that all I wanted to do was fly.
It was on that line, not four feet behind where Eric and Chris stand as pictured in the review, that I met Heidi. It took a few years of putting the pieces together that it would amount to much, but it did, it changed everything.
He saw good in me when very few others did, but way beyond that he helped me to see it. What makes him a great artist, if I may for a moment speak out of turn, is maybe just that; the act of making us see things in ourselves that we thought were not there or had long ago forsaken.
Another four star review for Eric is no big thing, not when you compare it to teaching people to fly, for helping them to connect to their very souls.